Brexit trade negotiations to restart after Michel Barnier says deal 'within reach'
A Brexit trade deal could be done in a fortnight after the European Union caved to British conditions in a “significant” shift that led to negotiations being restarted in London on Thursday.
Michel Barnier said the new free trade agreement “was in reach” and UK sources said it could be struck in “two to three weeks”.
Both sides have agreed a schedule of daily, intensive talks up to the EU’s deadline at the end of this month.
Lord Frost was convinced Brussels was bringing a “fundamental” change of approach to the stalled negotiations after Mr Barnier gave a conciliatory speech in the European Parliament in Brussels.
“We have agreed that a basis for negotiations with the EU and Michel Barnier has been re-established,” Lord Frost, the UK’s top Brexit official, said as he rebooted trade talks.
Mr Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said: “We will seek the necessary compromises on both sides. In order to do our utmost to reach an agreement, we will do so right up until the last day that it’s possible to do so.”
“We want a deal that will be mutually beneficial to both parties in respect of the autonomy and sovereignty of both sides. A deal reflecting a balanced compromise.
“An agreement is within reach,” he said, as the pound made its biggest gains since March.
Mr Barnier’s explicit admission that the EU, as well as the UK, would have to compromise on its red lines and that British sovereignty would be respected brought the breakthrough.
His calls for intensive, daily talks on all subjects, rather than just the three major sticking points, and on the basis of legal texts, satisfied UK preconditions for a return to the negotiating table.
Boris Johnson had declared that he was ready to “embrace” World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms from Jan 1 after his Oct 15 no-deal deadline was missed. Trade talks were over, he said on Friday, after the EU called on the UK to “move” from its negotiating position.
A UK source said Mr Barnier’s climbdown was a “significant change” from an EU insistence that Britain had to concede ground.
“There’s a chance now for us to have a real negotiation rather than going round in circles,” the source said.
Negotiations start in London on Thursday and will alternate between London and Brussels. If the Covid situation gets worse negotiations could move online.
Lord Frost secured a string of commitments from Mr Barnier setting out how the race to the deadline for the deal will be run.
The UK’s chief negotiator and Mr Barnier will meet every day to oversee progress and “deal with the most sensitive political issues in the talks”. Those include the major obstacles of fishing rights, the level playing field guarantees and the enforcement of the deal.
Simultaneous negotiations will take place across all 11 parts of the proposed future trading relationship and on the basis of each side’s legal texts, which is a first for the trade talks.
Discussions between about 200 officials could stretch to the first week of November if absolutely necessary, but the bloc’s preference is the end of the month, EU sources said.
The zero tariff, zero quota deal needs to be agreed by mid-November so EU leaders can give it their political blessing at a European Council summit.
That would leave enough time for the agreement to be ratified by the European Parliament before the end of the Brexit transition period.
Despite the breakthrough, tough negotiations are expected. “It is entirely possible that negotiations will not succeed,” a No 10 spokesman said.
It is still possible the UK will leave the transition period without a deal, which will mean trading on WTO terms with tariffs and quotas from Jan 1.